Above: Shula and Hand at Verdical Group’s 10 Year Anniversary Party in Downtown LA.
Celebrating 10 Years of Verdical Group: A Conversation with VG’s Founder and First Employee
By Jordan Klotzle
Verdical Group has come a long way since it was first created in Drew Shula’s Pasadena garage in 2012. As we celebrate 10 years of “Doing Good and Doing Well,” I spoke to our Founder & CEO Drew Shula, as well as VG’s first-ever employee, Director & Chief of Staff Emily Hand, about where the company has been, where it’s going, and what makes it so unique. Their answers shed light on Verdical Group’s founding values and how they have enabled VG to grow into a major force for good in the business world.
Drew, what inspired you to start a company like Verdical Group?
DS: Coming out of college, I really wanted to do good in the world and make money doing it, but I was lost, and couldn’t figure out how to do that. After a few years of working jobs like selling peaches at a farmers market stand in Berkeley, and at a wine bottle label printing company, I found the green building and sustainability world, where I could leverage my degree in architecture with making a positive impact on people and the environment. I have always been focused on both making money and doing good, and this led me to eventually discover B Corporations, which was transformational for me. I use business as a force for good.
Emily, you were Verdical Group’s first employee outside of Drew. What made you want to work at VG as you were first starting out your career?
EH: When I was still at Loyola Marymount University, I got in contact with Drew for an informational interview. He was the LEED Consultant on the new Life Sciences Building on campus, and I wanted to learn more about how he got to where he was in his career, since green building consulting was exactly what I wanted to do. Drew met me on campus because I didn’t have a car at the time, and we had a great conversation. The biggest takeaway was that we were both extremely aligned with our goals and values — I shared Drew’s vision of wanting to “Do Good and Do Well.” At the end of the meet up, I came away with an internship and a new sense of purpose. What drew me in was that original vision—working with awesome people to make a positive impact on the built environment, and having fun along the way.
What did you envision for Verdical Group’s future during those first few years on your own? How does that early vision compare to where the company is at today?
DS: The first few years, I could only see a week or two ahead of me at a time. Making payroll, sending invoices, writing proposals, figuring out insurance, not to mention the project work…. It was like jumping off a cliff and trying to assemble an airplane on the way down. Still, even though it was just me in my garage, I named the company Verdical “Group” because I knew we’d grow and be a home for an incredible group of sustainability experts. I actually came across my 2010 business plan for Verdical Group recently, and was shocked that it’s essentially what we are today. Now the challenge is continuing to scale our positive impact into the future.
What would you say was Verdical Group’s biggest obstacle as a young company?
DS: Everything is hard starting out. It’s hard to find work, hard to make money, hard to attract talent, and hard to make a name for yourself. It takes years to get out of the woods and know you’re going to be alright. But we’re a people business and what’s always kept us on strong footing are great people. Emily Hand started with me as an intern, then became employee number one, and now 10 years later is a senior leader on our team. Verdical Group has become a place where people grow their careers, their families, and their legacy as we complete some of the most exciting sustainability projects in the world.
What are some of the biggest ways you’ve seen the company change throughout your time as an employee?
EH: Our company, team, services, clients, and projects have all leveled up. When I first started, it was just me and Drew. We had a handful of clients and primarily focused on LEED consulting services. We each wore every hat you could think of to keep the business going. Today, we have a team of 22 multidisciplinary experts, we have hundreds of amazing clients and projects with high-performance building goals, and our service offerings have expanded significantly to not only include LEED, but also WELL, Fitwel, Envision, CHPS, Living Building Challenge, Commissioning, Energy Modeling, Daylight Modeling, Life-Cycle Assessment, ESG, and sustainable event production, including our own Net Zero Conference.
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned over the past 10 years of your VG journey?
DS: Using your voice and saying “no” is one of the most valuable keys to success. Probably the worst mistake we’ve made was accepting fossil fuel funding for our annual Net Zero Conference from our local LA area natural gas utility, SoCalGas. They gave us money, and in return, exercised influence over how we talked about natural gas. As soon as we realized what was happening, we had a full company meeting and decided to say “no” to the funding, but not after some reputational damage had already been done. But this big mistake turned into one of our best learning lessons, and a story we now proudly share with others. We’re proud that we resisted selling out, stayed true to what we believe is worth fighting for, and now have the total freedom to advocate against fossil fuels like natural gas as loudly as we possibly can.
Unfortunately, there are many environmental organizations who have been bought by SoCalGas and we hope our story will reach them and give them the courage to make a change. You can’t lead an environmental organization with a clear conscience if you’re receiving fossil fuel funding. I got into business to do things differently, and we don’t have time to tiptoe around the climate crisis. Verdical Group’s marketing channels are used to educate and amplify critically important issues including: human rights, human equality, democracy, voting, environmentalism, antiracism, climate action, anti-fossil fuels, and divestment. As we grow into the future, Verdical Group will continue to be a company with a loud voice advocating for positive social and environmental change.
What do you believe sets Verdical Group apart from other for-profit companies?
EH: We walk the talk. Since day one, it’s always been about using the business as a force for good. We’ve demonstrated this not only through the positive environmental impact we’ve had on our projects but also through our commitment as a 1% for the Planet member company and as a certified B corporation. We have shown, and will continue to show, that for-profit companies can ‘do good’ while also ‘doing well’.
What do you hope to see for Verdical Group within the next 10 years?
EH: Continued growth! I think the biggest way the company has changed throughout my time is its year-over-year growth. One of my favorite parts about working for Verdical Group is our team and our clients and partners—I can’t wait to see how Verdical Group’s team, clients, and projects change over the next 10 years.
DS: Most traditional companies seek growth as the empty pursuit of profit, but we approach growth as an opportunity to do more good. As Verdical Group grows, the more sustainability projects we touch, the more good we do for people and the environment. We’re a for-profit company—money is important, and comes with growth as well—but we will never sell out to pursue dollars over what’s right. Our goal is for Verdical Group to be the largest sustainability company in the world, but only if we can continue to grow, while maintaining the same principles and values we operate from today. Our purpose is making a positive impact, and we’ll go out of business, before we focus on profits over purpose.